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Talking With The Animals. Science May Be Leading the Way

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by John Thompson

"If we could walk with the animals, talk with the animals, what a wonderful place this world would be." -- Dr. Dolittle

While working as a subarctic field biologist for the Manitoba Provincial Government, Farley Mowat reported these events:

With his Inuit assistant, Ootek, Mowat was observing the daily routines at a wolf den when Ootek turned toward a mountain range five miles away and cupped his hands to his ears. "Listen, the wolves are talking," Ootek told Mowat, who couldn't hear anything.

The alpha male wolf they were watching also listened, then "threw back his head and howled, a long, quavering howl which started low and ended on the highest note my ears would register." Later, Ootek explained that the wolf he heard was passing along information from a wolf in the next territory, who was saying that the caribou herd was moving, where they were (some 40 miles distant) and in what direction they were traveling. The wolf Mowat and Ootek were observing had howled the information on to another pack. Ootek's information proved to be exactly accurate.

Days later, while watching the same pack, Mowat tells of the leader's mate acting restless and uneasy. Again, Ootek's attention was suddenly caught by a sound that was inaudible to Mowat. The female wolf soon became calmer and Ootek explained that her mate had howled to say that hunting was not going well and he wouldn't arrive home until around midday. Of course, that is exactly when the male returned.

Mowat relates these events in his book, Never Cry Wolf, which chronicles two summers and a winter observing a single pack in northern Manitoba. Since then, he has written or edited more than 30 books and has received six honorary doctorates for his work.

Mowat's story may seem improbable, yet scientists are now seriously involved in rediscovering animal language. Animals do talk with each other, and sometimes other species listen, understand, and even respond in their own way.

Humans used to be part of that chain of information. But, the pace of our lives, the demands upon our awareness and background noises have smothered our intimate connection with nature. "Only in acts of inarticulate compassion, in rare and hidden moments of communion with nature, does man briefly escape his solitary destiny," says anthropologist Loren Eiseley.

Listening to barks & meows

Many years ago, Charles Darwin noted that the difference between species is in degrees, not in kind. Animals feel many of the same emotions we do and that similarity provides an opportunity to bridge the lonely gap. Those who develop deep relationships with companion animals understand this level of interspecies communication.

In one of his many peer-reviewed papers on the subject, Péter Pongrácz, professor of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, uses science to demonstrate how much we share:

Nineteen dogs, all companion animals, were placed in various situations, such as being offered a walk, tied to a tree watching their guardian disappear, seeing their favorite toy, having a stranger walk into their yard, and having a stranger pretend to attack their guardian.

The barks were recorded, then played back to a test audience. Participants were asked to choose from a list of options as to which emotionality each bark was expressing and the situation that the dog was in at the time. Regardless of previous experience with dogs (and some had none), participants identified both components with accuracy higher than chance levels.

Additional experiments by Prof. Pongrácz suggest that there are some fundamental similarities in the way language is constructed that extend across species. "Human's ability to recognize meaning suggests that barks could serve as an effective means of communication between dog and human," Prof. Pongrácz wrote in the journal Animal Behaviour.

That view seems to hold true with cats also. In the October 4, 2002 Weekly Reader, Cornell University researcher Nicholas Nicastro observed that cats have learned how to engage humans. Quoting from the article, Nicastro recorded 100 different meows from 12 cats. Some cats were placed in a car to get a distressed meow. Some cats were groomed beyond their patience to obtain a moody meow. Other cats were placed in a variety of situations to elicit a variety of meow sounds.

Nicastro then played the recordings to two sets of people. He asked the first group to rate each meow on a scale of pleasantness. He asked the second group to rate each meow in terms of urgency.

Nicastro discovered that the meows that people rated most pleasant were short, had a high frequency, and tended to change from high to low notes (as in ME-ow). The meows rated most urgent tended to be long, have a low frequency, and change from low to high notes (as in me-OWWW!).

"Cats have evolved to become [skilled] at managing and manipulating people," Nicastro added.

Jamming with cetaceans

Jim Nollman, founder of Interspecies Communications, Inc., has spent a lifetime playing music with whales and dolphins. Jim ventures into oceans and bays with an assortment of musical instruments and underwater acoustical devices. We spoke with Nollman about his experiences.

"Almost always, the smaller cetaceans will come over to the boat to see what's up. Orcas, for instance, speak with each other with a whistle-like melodic sound, so I play with that theme and maybe try it in a different key. If they respond in that new key, then I know we have something going on.

"Orcas also make a rhythmic clicking sound, which is their echolocation (like sonar) for knowing what's in their space. They have a much more sophisticated sense of rhythm than I do, but I can occasionally get them to respond in rhythm and, when that happens, I can actually have a circle of chord changes, and then it gets really incredible."

Rather than just imitating, Nollman says that Orcas "really get the music fast and they kind of lead me both with echoes and clicks and with melodies." They won't respond to recorded music because there is no space for interaction, he says. "They understand musical structure. I don't think music is a human invention," he says.

Why do these animals get involved in a musical interchange? "Because they're just as interested in us as we are in them. These are masters of sound. So if we can be subtle and crafty about it, they have an appreciation."

To understand what Nollman has accomplished, think of non-verbally sharing an emotion with someone. Love, for instance, or the sense of communion that two musicians may achieve while improvising together. Nollman is telling us about such a close encounter.

Jungle Opera

Communication is also about exchanging information, and animals often accomplish this in ways that we never imagined.

The January 6, 2007 Science News reported on gibbon research in the jungles of Southeast Asia by a team of scientists from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and the Max Plank Institute, Germany. Gibbons are small, tree-dwelling apes who fill the jungle with their full-throated songs.

More than extraordinary music, the researchers are finding that gibbons string melodic components together to pass along vital information. When announcing the approach of a predator, for instance, a gibbon starts with a soft "hoo" sound and then interjects other notes in a "syntax" that is similar to the way human language is constructed. Gibbons from other groups join in until the forest reverberates with the sound.

This kind of research is disarming to those who have long insisted that rules or patterns of language are the exclusive province of humans. "As humans, we suffer from cognitive myopia," University of California psychologist Timothy Gentner told Discovery News. "We understand things from our point of view. Animals are noteworthy and miraculous, not just because they share traits with us, but because they are special and impressive in their own right." Gentner also suggested that, like the mythical Dr. Dolittle, some animals are bilingual in that they understand other species.

Thundering elephants and twittering starlings

Another aspect of animal language once thought to be the exclusive right of humans is the ability to learn new language components and alter them as needed. European researchers recently observed that some birds have adapted to city life by switching to shorter, higher-pitched phrases than their country relatives use. This revision, which is evolving as the birds teach each other new phrases, may be because lower-pitched, slower language can't be heard over the constant noise of the city.

On the other side of the scale, researchers are very excited about the infrasounds, below the range of human hearing, made by many animals. These low frequencies can travel right through trees, mountains and water, explaining how whales, dolphins and many other species can talk to each other over long distances.

Elephants, for instance, have much more to say than we ever realized because they use infrasound. When these frequencies are generated by such a large animal, researchers say they can sometimes feel the pressure waves in the air just like a music system's woofer speaker on full volume.

Recordings made in the jungle by Katy Payne, director of Cornell University's Elephant Listening Project, are showing that infrasound enables elephants, who are very family oriented, to stay in constant touch for weeks at a time even though separated by miles. A side benefit of this research is coming as large areas of forest are ringed with remote microphones, allowing researchers to hear and know where elephants are and to zero in on the gunshots of poachers hunting ivory and bushmeat.

Another bioacoustic researcher, Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, has recorded the infrasonics of various animals and earth events. Even though the frequencies are below human hearing, when she plays the recordings to people who are connected to an EEG, she found that their brains responded appropriately to each sound. The infrasonics of a tsunami and a tiger, for instance, triggered a "fight or flight" reaction, while vibrations from friendly animals were recognized as a non-threat. This suggests that our brains still retain essential primitive communication information.

Looking within

Until recently, teaching animals to deal with our language was a common research technique. Asking a non-human entity to adapt to think like us, however, has limits. A more promising path is coming from scientific preparations for meeting extraterrestrial beings. Researchers say that travelers from outer space may have entirely different frames of reference and mental processes, and they are developing technology that could facilitate understanding. These efforts recognize that communication can be subtle and untranslatable, just like Jim Nollman's encounters with dolphins.

Exciting, yes, but an awesome responsibility also. Writing in the March-April issue of The Futurist, Prof. Bruce Lloyd of London South Bank University and Susan Clayton, a futurist advisor based in the UK, say:

We can consider whether we will use our new knowledge to benefit animals, as Doctor Dolittle did, or primarily seek to benefit ourselves. Will we be motivated by an agenda of compassion and moral obligation, or will the issues just be left to economics and market forces?

As always, gaining new knowledge is the easy part. Using that knowledge responsibly is the hard part. Let's hope that, this time, we can reach out to our fellow beings with grace and honor, and learn something about ourselves in the process.

John Thompson is a local journalist focusing on environmental and animal issues. He is also an MHS board member.

Listen to the animals
Here are some opportunities to hear and see animals talking.

Listen to the sound of the wolves

Listen to the gibbon songs

Listen to a forest clearing at night, full of forest elephants

Learn more about the greeting ceremonies of elephants (article)

Learn more about the social lives of forest elephants (video)

Listen to a variety of animals

Listen to whales, dolphins, and their duets with Jim Nollman

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